Maryland Court of Appeals Grants New Trial to Battered Wife in Murder-for-Hire Case

A new ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals is a very important one regarding how battered spouse syndrome can affect and bolster a criminal defendant’s defense. In the ruling, the court concluded that the law of imperfect self-defense requires a belief that the threat was immediate or imminent, but the requirement of imminence does not require proof of closeness in terms of time. In other words, the battered wife on trial did not need to prove that she feared that her husband was going to kill her immediately in order to obtain a jury instruction on imperfect self-defense in her Maryland criminal trial.

The case arose from what law enforcement initially thought was a robbery-gone-wrong incident. Ultimately, police concluded that no robbery took place and that the shooting at the gas station was part of a wife’s murder-for-hire plot to kill her husband. At trial, the wife testified that she did, in fact, hire various individuals for the purpose of killing her husband. She testified that she did so because the husband had abused her for decades, and she had come to fear that, if she didn’t kill him, he would kill her. The wife offered multiple witnesses to back up her claim, including a forensic psychiatrist, who opined that the wife suffered from battered spouse syndrome.

At the conclusion of the case, the two sides debated the proper instruction to give the jury regarding self-defense. The trial judge ultimately gave the jury the instruction proposed by the prosecution. After deliberation, the jury found the wife guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the trial court, but the state’s highest court ordered a new trial. The flaw that required granting the wife a new trial went back to the instructions the jury received on self-defense. Maryland law recognizes two types of self-defense, one called perfect self-defense and the other called imperfect self-defense. Imperfect self-defense means that you actually believed you were in imminent or immediate danger (even if that belief wasn’t reasonable) and that you actually believed the amount of force you used was appropriate (even if it wasn’t). Perfect self-defense may entitle you to an acquittal, while imperfect self-defense may mean a conviction on a lesser crime (like voluntary manslaughter instead of murder).

In this case, the instruction the judge gave the jury was erroneous because it stated that, in order to find that the wife acted in imperfect self-defense, the jury needed to conclude that she “used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend herself.” The law, however, only requires that the defendant believe the force was necessary, whether it was or not. The state argued that the conviction should stand because the wife never proved that she believed she was in imminent or immediate danger.

The Court of Appeals concluded that, in the context of a battered spouse, the term “imminent” did not mean instantly close in terms of time. Instead, it broadened the context of imminence to mean something that “is not dependent on its temporal proximity to the defensive act. Rather, it is one that places the defendant in imminent fear for her life.” Put another way, the court announced that “we decline to hold that a woman suffering from battered spouse syndrome must experience abuse within minutes or hours of her defensive action to be entitled to an instruction on imperfect self-defense. Doing so would ignore the reality of intimate partner violence.”

This meant that the wife’s evidence was sufficient to show imminence and that the jury instruction should have focused upon the wife’s belief regarding the appropriateness of the force used, rather than whether or not it actually was appropriate. As a result, she was entitled to a new trial.

Criminal law is changing and evolving each day with the addition of new decisions to the case books. In order to give yourself a good chance of success, you need experienced counsel who is fully versed and up-to-date on all of the law regarding criminal trials and defense. Skilled Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been working on behalf of the accused in Maryland for many years to provide them with a full, vigorous, and reliable defense, and he has the knowledge and skill you need. To learn more, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland’s High Court Throws Out Attempted Murder Conviction Against Driver Who Fled from Police, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Dec. 21, 2016

Maryland Court Upholds Sentence for Conspiracy and Murder Convictions, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 6, 2016

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